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  Mars Spacecraft Likely Destroyed

Artist's conception of the Mars Climate Orbiter. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)  
By Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 1999; 12:41 p.m. EDT

NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft swept in at a dangerously low altitude upon arrival at the Red Planet early today and probably burned or broke up in the atmosphere, stunned and exhausted mission managers reported.

"I am sorry to report that we have a very serious problem with the Mars Climate Orbiter. We may be facing a loss of mission," Carl Pilcher, NASA's chief of solar system exploration, told reporters at an 11 a.m. EDT briefing.

If a navigation failure was the cause of the accident, as engineers suggested, it would represent an unprecedented failure for a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., that leads the world in aiming spacecraft through tiny, moving bulls'-eyes in space, hundreds of millions, or billions, of miles distant.

NASA formed a special team to investigate the event, as mission managers continued searching for the $125 million spacecraft. They were listening on varying frequencies in hopes of hearing a signal.

Controllers at JPL failed to re-acquire communications with the craft as expected at 5:25 a.m. EDT, when it was supposed to emerge from behind Mars following a firing of its engines that would have inserted it into an orbit about 87 miles above the surface.

Instead, according to mission manager Richard Cook, controllers realized belatedly that the trajectory had "dropped" to an altitude of about 37 miles, most likely sending the craft directly into the stressing forces of the thin Martian atmosphere. "It looks like something was wrong with the ground navigation," Cook said. "We are, to put it bluntly . . . surprised."

The orbiter was to have served as a communications relay for the Mars Polar Lander, scheduled to arrive on the Martian surface Dec. 3. However, managers said, there will be no loss of scientific return from the lander because there are two other communications routes available. One is direct transmission from the surface, the other is a relay through the Mars Global Surveyor currently orbiting the planet.

Following its service to the landing mission, the Climate Orbiter was to have spent a Martian year (687 days) studying the climate.

The missing spacecraft was one of 20 science missions NASA has launched in the last two years and, with the lander, represented the second wave in a planned 12-year assault on the secrets of the Red Planet.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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